A group of  senior U.S. senators – both Democrats and Republicans – are calling on Saudi Arabia to immediately release several female political prisoners who were jailed in a crackdown on women’s rights protests that swept the country several years ago.

Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), ranking members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, sent a bipartisan letter this week to Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United States.

Other Senators also signed onto the letter.

“We call for releasing these individuals on the merits of their cases, but today, we also urge you to act quickly on health and humanitarian grounds,” the Senators wrote.

“The rapid spread of COVID-19 is a threat to all people and nations, but prison populations are at a heightened risk due to the inability to practice social distancing, poor sanitation, and lack of adequate medical care. We encourage the leaders of the Kingdom to seize this opportunity during this global crisis by immediately releasing these individuals.”

The letter comes at a moment when apparent President-elect Joe Biden is vowing to “reassess” the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Biden is angry with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on a host of matters, ranging from how the Saudis are prosecuting the war in Yemen and the humanitarian crisis there to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to various human rights abuses.

The senators named specific prisoners: Loujain al-HathloulNouf Abdulaziz, Maya’a al-Zahrani, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada, all of whom were jailed for trying to advocate for women’s and human rights in Saudi Arabia.

“These women have been wrongly detained simply for exercising their fundamental rights, and justice demands they be released,” continued the senators.

The sister of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul – who is currently on a hunger strike – said she had been tortured and sexually abused in jail.

Rubio and Menendez were joined senators Chris Coons (D-CT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ed Markey (D-MA). 

The full text of the letter can be read here.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also called on governments worldwide to take urgent action to protect people in detention and other closed facilities.

“With outbreaks of the disease, and an increasing number of deaths, already reported in prisons and other institutions in an expanding number of countries, authorities should act now to prevent further loss of life among detainees and staff,” Bachelet said.

“In many countries, detention facilities are overcrowded, in some cases dangerously so. People are often held in unhygienic conditions and health services are inadequate or even non-existent. Physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible,” she added.




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